Glacier, pine, moose

Arriving.

I wanted to go to Glacier before the glaciers melted.

M and I drove across North Dakota in September, through grey midday skies that drifted into the horizon. Flat and misty and shouldered in by hurrying semi trucks on I-94. We stayed in a tiny Forest Service campground the first night, woke to the prairie wind tugging at our tent from the inside.  The kind of wind that combs through the grasses. The kind of wind whose physical form you can see, smoothing the landscape with open hands.

Into Montana, shear rock faces snuck up on us, the way mountains sometimes do. We pulled into a deserted campsite, small and quiet in a rocky basin, and were too spooked by the bear-alert signs to stay there alone, so we kept driving to find people. The moon rose and the wind shushed in the tall pines, punctuated only by intermittent cars on the mountain highway.

tall pines with the moon rising behind them

Sunrise is slow in the mountains.

We packed up into the little red car as the sun was coming over the ridge, having been awake for a few hours, cold fingers holding coffee mugs and brushing wet pine needles from the footprint of the tent.

We drove through one-road towns, tucked in just a few hundred feet off the road. Decaying, fire-destroyed wooden buildings littered themselves down the slopes, and the Belt Creek ran beside the asphalt and under the road. The colors changed to a palette of rust, seafoam, and evergreen.

Rocks under clear water

East Glacier. 

Trees turned more gold and the temperature dropped as we drove north into autumn. We made it to Two Medicine camp in East Glacier that night. The lake reflected the gloaming moon and the post-sunset shadow mountains.

a person takes a picture of mountains reflected in a mirror-still lake

moon and pines reflected in the lake

In the early morning there was no wind, just the silence of the night animals except for one faraway owl.

One morning bighorn sheep tore through the campsite, galloping straight toward me on a walk back from the bathroom. I froze and then tucked myself into an empty campsite while they ate coal from the fire pit, huffing and startling each other.

bighorn sheep startle and begin to run

We read and wrote and hiked each day. Something I like about camping is that I get to wake up and be immediately outside, to get out of my head and into the trees.

As we hiked we found blue-green pools.

a waterfall comes out of the middle of a rock wall. the water is turquoise.

A moose drinking.

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Trees bent and broken from storms.

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The bears are getting ready to hibernate and are eating single-mindedly, constantly. They are more easily startled. We walked paths with hidden turns, hollering and clapping so bears would know we were coming.

It rained and stopped, rained and stopped. Clouds low and water breathing.

person looking at a misty lake

At night, the clouds cleared, and with them their insulation. Our tent was covered in frost and we stuffed army wool blankets into our sleeping bags.

(to be continued…)

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Perspective

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hoare-ice

Two years ago I took these photos. The top in this series is a 4 mile long iceberg in the Ross Sea; the middle, a photo from the helicopter of frozen pools and volcanic dirt; the last photo a super-close view of the icy surface of Lake Hoare. I’ve been missing this beautiful continent a lot lately and thinking about how important the next few years of policy will be in preserving it.

Ice Caves of the Erebus Glacier Tongue

There are ice caves that grow and disappear within the edges of the tongue that ruptures out from the Erebus Glacier. Every year they are different, and the mountaineers who work with the Field Safety department discover them and decide whether they are safe for entry.

We went out on snowmobiles, cold air and two-stroke motor exhaust trailing behind us, stopped in sudden silence at the base, stark and soft like bones in the desert. Ethereal rooms with smooth sculptors’ ridges on the walls, fuzzy stalactites of ice dripping from the ceiling. Turquoise to violet ice, moving air in the farthest secret recesses like the glacier breathing on your skin.

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Ice Caves deep2

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Ice Caves jump

Sea Ice, Cape Evans and Scott’s Hut Photo Extravaganza!

In November my department had the opportunity to take McMurdo’s sea ice training course, teaching vehicle operators how to profile cracks in the sea ice to determine if the surface could withstand the weight of the vehicle and whether it was safe to cross. We’d identify a crack, shovel a trench across it, drill into the ice until sea water gushed out, and drop a special measuring tape into the water.

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Sea Ice Drilling copy

There were Weddell seals along the road, not paying us any mind, dappled skin stretched across fatty heft, sighing and breathing across the frost—the holes they came out of a few feet away, littered with expelled bits of ice and blood.

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Sea Ice Erebus

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Our teacher was awesome, taking us to see things nearby, profiling cracks along the way. We entered an ice amphitheater, a brilliant curved elbow hollow, pocked shining walls and gargantuan feathered veins running up 80 feet. We placed our hands on icebergs’ solemn, glistening faces, being present with bodies much older than ourselves.

Sea Ice Big Blue Berg

Scott’s Hut on Cape Evans was a few miles away, a hundred year old building where the explorers spent three winters. Penguin carcasses, primitive ice cleat boots made of fur and canvas, crates of tea and potted meats. A darkroom full of tiny bottles, old spooky chemicals. A dog’s skeleton, still chained to the stable. It smelled like dust and hay and seal blubber, and written on one of the bunks in very light pencil, “Losses to date: Haywood, Mack, Smyth, Shak (?)” (I read later that Shackleton was missing at that point, his fate still uncertain).

It was an amazing day!

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Heavy lavender clouds over the ice…

A few Sundays ago we walked to Hut point, just outside of town.

Royals and Clouds

 

Hut Point Footsteps

It was windy, smoky streaks of snow filtering through the lava rocks, old compacted footsteps growing from the path on little pedestals.

Hut Point 2

 

Hut Point 1

 

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Adult seals with their pups were loafing on the ice, not worried about the wind.

McMurdo 101

The US has three stations in Antarctica, and this year I’m working in McMurdo, the largest station (and formerly just a transitional jumping point to me when I was trying to get on a flight to the South Pole). It’s on Ross Island, and we fly here on a C-17, Airbus, or LC-130 from New Zealand.

hello from McMurdo

It’s a big station, around a thousand people in the height of summer (ie, now). There are dorms, admin buildings, a firehouse, power plant, water distillation plant, wharf, a store, three bars, three gyms, warehouses, and a ton of science (glaciology, marine biology, aeronomy and astrophysics, earth science, ocean and atmospheric studies). Three runways and a helicopter pad. And like a big old city there is above-ground water, sewer, telephone, and power lines.

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It was really cold.

It was pretty cold for a bit at the beginning of the season, though nothing compared to Pole. Lots of 50-knot winds, really poor visibility, and -30F.

It’s not too cold out right now, maybe 20F above zero. It smells like melt outside and there is milky mud water streaming down the hills toward the bay.

The photo below shows MacTown at 3am–the shadow across town, cast by Observation Hill, is all of the brief  “sunset” we get these days.

MacTown from Ob Hill

Building 211, McMurdo, Antarctica
This is my pretty little house…
...and my pretty little room...
…and my pretty little room…
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A construction zone or a giant Lego set.

In town, it’s kind of like living in a construction zone, loaders and pickup trucks driving everywhere, gravel roads, exposed fuel pipes and spools of cable. But the magical thing about being here is all the stuff outside of town–hikes and preserved huts from the old Antarctic explorers and ice caves.

Stay tuned for some of the icier stuff, coming soon!